KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The forecast has steadily improved for Justin Verlander being ready for the start of the season. The forecast for his first start of the spring, on the other hand, has grown increasingly questionable.
With a strong possibility of rain around Lakeland for Thursday's game against a Phillies split-squad, the Tigers could find themselves with a tricky call to make: Let Verlander get in his long-awaited work and get his preparation for a potential Opening Day assignment, or avoid the risk of injury and have him throw in a dry, indoor setting.
Manager Brad Ausmus and pitching coach Jeff Jones were weighing that on Wednesday afternoon.
"We didn't make any final decision," Ausmus said, "but we have discussed the possibility of just going to the batting cages. It's really going to depend on whether the game obviously is canceled or not, and if it's not canceled, exactly how bad are the weather conditions on the mound?
"It sounds like the game is just going to end up being canceled [if the weather is bad]. If that's the case, Justin will throw in the batting cage, more than likely."
It's not as simple as the forecast. The Tigers timed Verlander's recovery program from core muscle surgery with the goal of having him start five games this spring and stretch his pitch count towards 100.
If Verlander has to throw indoors, no matter how much he might try to duplicate game conditions, it won't be the same. He won't get the feedback from opposing hitters on what he's throwing, the movement on a pitch, that he wants at this time in the spring.
Moving Verlander back a day to get that game action, however, does not sound like an option at this point. To do so, Ausmus said, would put Verlander off his turn in the rotation. By slotting Verlander into Thursday's start, the Tigers quietly put him in a position where he could be on his regular rest for Opening Day, if the team chose him to make his seventh consecutive season-opening assignment.
The Tigers have a Friday night game against the Yankees at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Anibal Sanchez is currently scheduled to start that game, with Joe Nathan, Joba Chamberlain, Robbie Ray and Bruce Rondon slated to pitch in relief. Even using Verlander in relief would force Ausmus and pitching coach Jeff Jones to move around several pitchers.
Verlander commands a game when he's on, but he has no counter for Mother Nature. If it allows him to pitch, it'll bring him back on track barely two months after undergoing surgery.
Verlander felt confident enough in his health after two sessions of live pitching against hitters in camp that he wanted an extra bullpen session to work on two mechanical issues that he and Jones discovered.
"It was just something Jeff and I both saw, one of the things I really need to get back to the way I throw," Verlander said last week. "I think I kind of got out of whack a bit last year. That might have had something to do with the core muscle [injury], it might not have. I don't know. But I know I don't need to worry about that. That's healed up. I need to get back to the way I should throw physically, mechanically."
Ausmus said he'll be more focused on Verlander's mechanics in a game -- whenever that game comes -- than his numbers.
"I'm not so much worried about the results," Ausmus said. "I want to see him throwing the way he normally does."